Introduction to Paul’s Letter to the Philippians

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Personal stories are the stuff of life. Think about it. Generally speaking, are you more engaged when a professor talks about a theory or when he recounts a funny experience from fourth grade? It’s one thing to read a few facts about a person’s life in the obituaries. It’s another to read a biography of why his life mattered. The letter to the Philippians is a compelling book, in part because Paul provides several autobiographical glimpses into his own life. And he uses these personal reflections as well as the examples of others to depict what joy-filled, gospel-focused spiritual maturity looks like.

The Author: What Were Paul’s Circumstances?

First, in order to understand this book, we should consider Paul’s own situation. The apostle wrote this letter from prison, several times mentioning his “bonds” (Phil. 1:7, 13, 14, 16). His captivity was well-known to Roman officials, as he indicates with the phrase “manifest in all the palace” (1:13). In addition, there were professing believers who opposed Paul and were trying to make his condition worse (1:16). They harbored “envy and strife” against him (1:15).

Though confined and opposed in ways that would discourage most, Paul was optimistic. He rejoiced that Christ was being proclaimed, even if some of the evangelists’ underlying motivations were antagonistic toward him (1:16–18). Furthermore, he believed that “through (the Philippians’) prayer, and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ,” he would be delivered (1:19). (The word salvation does not refer to the deliverance of his soul from sin but the deliverance of his body from prison.) Paul acknowledged that God might choose to honor Himself through Paul’s death (1:20), and the prospect of departing and being with Christ appealed to him (1:23). He declared, “To die is gain” (1:21). But the apostle was persuaded that God still had a ministry for him to do “for (the Philippians’) furtherance and joy of faith” (1:25). Therefore, throughout this letter, Paul conveys a hopeful expectation of release and further service for the Lord. Its outlook differs from 2 Timothy, in which Paul declares that his death is imminent (2 Tim. 4:6).

The Recipients: What Was the Philippians’ Story?

Paul was not writing to strangers but to a church God had used him to start. The circumstances surrounding the emergence of this local church and the ongoing relationship they maintained with Paul provide additional context for understanding what Paul says to the recipients of this letter. Their spiritual story consists of a divinely ordained mission field, divinely empowered evangelism, and an ongoing ministry partnership.

A Divinely Ordained Mission Field

Paul and his co-laborers were traveling through Asia Minor (today Turkey) when God the Spirit prevented them from continuing (Acts 16:7). So, the missionary team, which included at least Silas and Timothy, took an alternate route to Troas, where Paul experienced what we know as “the Macedonian vision” (16:9). This series of divinely authored events convinced the missionaries — whom the author Luke has now joined, as indicated by the “we” in 16:10 — that “the Lord had called (them) to preach the Gospel unto (the Macedonians)” (16:10). For the first time in recorded history, the good news of Jesus Christ was entering Europe.

In a matter of days, Paul and his coworkers arrived in Philippi, “the chief city of that part of Macedonia, and a colony” (16:12). Philippi’s status as a Roman colony was a big deal. Its people enjoyed the rights of Roman citizenship, such as property ownership. Paul alludes to this status in his letter with the word conversation, which means citizenship (Phil. 1:27; 3:20). However, although Philippi was fairly strong politically, it was weak religiously. As was his custom, on his first Sabbath in town Paul attempted to minister “to the Jew first” (Rom. 1:16). But there was no synagogue for them to visit, meaning there were in Philippi fewer than the 10 male Jews necessary to constitute a synagogue (Acts 16:13).

Divinely Empowered Evangelism

In spite of this lack of Jewish influence, God was at work. A businesswoman from Thyatira named Lydia “worshipped God” and heard Paul’s company speaking to devout women at a place of prayer “by a river side” (Acts 16:13–14). The Lord “opened” her heart to believe, and “she was baptized, and her household” (16:15). Meanwhile, Paul exorcised a demonic spirit out of a slave girl who “brought her masters much gain” by telling fortunes (16:16–18). These owners subsequently captured and dragged Paul and Silas to the city magistrates to be punished for upending local religious customs. A mob joined the fray, and the officials ruled that the missionaries should be beaten and imprisoned (16:19–24).

It was in that Philippian jail that one of the most famous events in the apostle’s entire ministry occurred. Instead of seething in anger or sulking in pity, Paul and his colleague Silas prayed and sang to God. Their faith was accompanied by an earthquake that broke the prisoners free from their shackles. But when the jailer thought all was lost, Paul rushed to assure him that no prisoner had fled. This series of providences prompted the jailer to ask, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (16:25–30). The jailer took his Christian prisoners home, and he and his entire household believed on the Lord Jesus Christ and were baptized (16:31–34). The following day the magistrates released Paul and then with embarrassment ushered him out of town after learning he was actually a Roman citizen just like them (16:35–40).

Ongoing Ministry Partnership

The Philippian church that began in Lydia’s home maintained a close relationship with Paul. His close connection with these believers is also evident by the multiple visits he made on his way to and from Greece (Acts 20:1–6). Perhaps more than any other church, they supported Paul financially (2 Cor. 11:9), even after he left the Macedonian region (Phil. 4:15). This church also supported the apostle repeatedly when he was ministering in nearby Thessalonica (4:16), instead of assuming that was the Thessalonians’ responsibility.

This combination of spiritual and physical help prompted Paul to thank God every time he remembered the Philippians because of their “fellowship in the Gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:5). Their interest in the advance of the Gospel is as evident as any local church mentioned in the New Testament. And this tangible, heartfelt support is the primary circumstance that prompted Paul to write his epistle.

Because of their concern for Paul’s well-being as a prisoner in Rome, the Philippian believers sent Epaphroditus 800 miles as a messenger to care for Paul’s needs (2:25). By this act of love, the Philippians displayed once again their concern for Paul, and this sacrificial effort gave Paul reason to “(rejoice) in the Lord greatly” (4:10). He commends them for sharing in the affliction he was enduring (4:14) and considers his situation to “abound” in light of their gift (4:18). They had done more than could be expected to express thanks for God’s grace and provide assistance for the spread of Christ’s Gospel.

The Purpose: Why Did Paul Write This Letter?

A Letter of Gratitude

Paul wrote the Philippians with several goals in mind. First, as mentioned earlier, he wanted to thank them for their gift of love. He tells them of his prayers of thanksgiving for them (1:4). Their gift not only ministered to a missionary’s needs but brought pleasure to God, like some of the fragrant sacrifices of the Old Covenant (4:18). Their gift was an act of worship. Furthermore, Paul assures them, “My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (4:19). The apostle could not reimburse them for their kindness, but the God who blessed him through their sacrificial gift would bless them too.

A Letter of Assurance

In addition to expressing his gratitude, Paul wanted to assure the Philippians of God’s merciful control of his circumstances and theirs. Though Paul’s situation was difficult, God was using his imprisonment and the adversity of other professing believers to spread the Gospel (1:12–18). Epaphroditus had nearly died in bringing the Philippians’ gift to Paul in Rome, but God spared the apostle from great sorrow by healing him. Therefore, Paul sent Epaphroditus back with his letter to the Philippians so that they could stop worrying and rejoice too (2:25–30). Paul also reassures his readers that he is content in whatever circumstances God places him and that he is taken care of (4:11–13, 18). Through this letter, Paul intends to persuade the Philippians to transition from anxiety to trust. In words that have become familiar, he says, “Be careful (anxious) for nothing” (4:6).

A Letter of Exhortation

A third aspect of his purpose is to exhort readers to be unified in the faith. Evidently, there was some divisiveness among the Philippian believers and the potential for more, because unity is a significant theme. He even mentions two women, Euodias and Syntyche, who needed to “be of the same mind in the Lord” (4:2). We do not know the nature of their disagreement, but it was significant enough for Paul to mention them specifically.

A Letter of Warning

This unity for the sake of the Gospel was important, in part, because the churches are vulnerable to false teaching. Therefore, a fourth goal is to expose theological error and charge believers to be wary of it. The false teachers apparently were emphasizing the necessity of circumcision (3:2–3). Consequently, Paul responds to this Judaizing error by using his personal testimony to explain justification by faith in Christ alone (3:4–9) and to urge the Philippians to persevere in the true Gospel (3:10–16). These “enemies of the cross of Christ” were focused on earthly pursuits, but a believer’s most important citizenship is in heaven (3:18–21).

Conclusion

Woven throughout the letter are the twin strands of maintaining a gospel focus and experiencing Christian joy. The book of Philippians teaches us to think Christianly and confirms that by living this way we experience true joy. As one commentary puts it, “Christian joy comes through having a Christ-centered mind.”[1] In this letter Paul motivates through autobiography. Each chapter includes passages where Paul speaks reflectively about his own spiritual experience. He also puts forward other faithful examples, like Timothy and Epaphroditus (2:19–30). The tie that binds together these goals and literary features is Paul’s overarching purpose of showing what joy-filled, gospel-focused spiritual maturity looks like. What does it take to live in a way that promotes the Gospel, trusts God instead of worrying, demonstrates unity with other believers, and avoids destructive theological error? Paul tells us in Philippians.

 

[1] Roger Ellwsorth, Opening Up Philippians (Leominster, UK: Day One Publications, 2004), 13.

 

This post is from Live Worthy of the Gospel: A Study in Philippians by Steve Pettit. Copyright 2016 by BJU Press. Printed by permission of BJU Press.


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Steve Pettit traveled for many years with the Steve Pettit Evangelistic Team before becoming president of Bob Jones University. His ultimate goal for BJU is to prepare students to serve and love others, no matter their vocation.